New Hampshire's Meldrim Thomson Is a Man of His Century—but Which One?

When opponents of New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thomson accuse him of having a 19th-century mentality, he objects. “They are wrong,” Thomson snaps. “My beliefs are rooted in the values of the 17th century, and I’m proud of it.”

Whatever his era, not even Thomson’s bitterest detractors would accuse the 65-year-old Republican of not knowing his own mind. A rhetorical saber rattler for all seasons, he recently proclaimed the 32nd anniversary of the United Nations as “Removal of Andrew J. Young Day.” The governor is currently leading a campaign against U.S. ratification of the Panama Canal treaty. “In the twilight of a great Bicentennial celebration,” he declares, “I find it abhorrent to witness an American President rushing to surrender our sovereign territory.”

Other targets of gubernatorial wrath include the federal bureaucracy, abortion, amnesty for Vietnam draft evaders, homosexuality and those who would tolerate it, gun control, environmentalists, welfare programs, the U.N., pornography and witchcraft (which he suspects is being taught in the schools). His enthusiasm for capital punishment is so great that when he signed a bill reinstating the death penalty in New Hampshire last September he announced proudly, “I feel like John Hancock when he finished putting his signature on the Declaration of Independence.”

It is Thomson’s opposition to taxes, however, that is the key to his political success. New Hampshire is the only state without either a personal income or sales tax; 50 percent of its revenues come from so-called “sin taxes” on liquor, beer, cigarettes and horse and dog racing. Voters appear to approve, having sent Thomson to the statehouse in Concord three times.

The governor has also benefited from his hand-in-glove alliance with William Loeb, the sulfurous right-wing publisher of New Hampshire’s only statewide newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. During one 18-month period, in fact, phone records indicated Thomson had called Loeb 256 times—proof, according to his critics, that he was playing Charlie McCarthy to Loeb’s Edgar Bergen.

Far from ducking political controversy, Thomson often goes looking for it. When Roman Catholic priests in New Hampshire announced their support of the Gallo wine boycott in 1975, Thomson took reporters to a state liquor store to watch him purchase a bottle. When an angry Massachusetts motorist gestured obscenely at the governor’s car after it had blocked him on an interstate highway, Thomson retaliated by suspending the man’s right to drive in New Hampshire. And when New York City tried to collect $70,000 in parking fines from New Hampshire scofflaws, Thomson suggested placing a lien on the Statue of Liberty and moving it to Portsmouth, N.H. He has forbidden the use of “Ms.” in any state communications and strongly opposes the ERA. “I see no reason for it because women are already equal,” he explains. “I always put women on a pedestal and thought they were better than men.”

Thomson’s bare-knuckle conservatism may be rooted in the hard lessons of his nomadic childhood. Son of a civil engineer, he was born in Pittsburgh but grew up in Georgia, Alabama and Florida. “We were poor as church mice,” he recalls, “and I went to 13 different schools in 12 years. In fourth, fifth and sixth grades I was passed only conditionally. But at 12 I joined the Boy Scouts and it changed my life. I made honor roll that year.” Later he worked his way through the University of Georgia Law School and went on to become editor-in-chief of a Brooklyn law book publishing firm. There, 39 years ago, he married his secretary, Gale, mother of their six grown children. Eventually Thomson quit to set up his own law book company in Orford, N.H. It is now run by two of his sons and earns more than $1 million a year.

Entering politics as a small-town school board chairman, he earned a measure of local fame by opposing federal aid for remedial reading. (New Hampshire per capita spending on education is now the lowest in the U.S.) Thomson went on to run for governor unsuccessfully in 1968, and again in 1970, before his first “Ax the Tax” victory in 1972. Today his base away from the governor’s mansion is a 500-acre cattle and maple sugar farm at the foot of Mount Cube in Orford. Back in Concord, he lives a vigorous outdoor life, rising at 5:30, running a mile, working diligently in his 11-acre garden. An avid hiker, he has already clambered up 41 New Hampshire peaks more than 4,000 feet high.

While critics view Thomson as a right-wing curmudgeon, he also symbolizes to many an earlier, simpler America—a man who favors law-and-order and prayer in the schools, while endorsing a few-holds-barred foreign policy. He has publicly mourned U.S. failure to invade China during the war in Korea, and has asked that the New Hampshire National Guard be trained in the use of nuclear weapons. Despairing that his party will follow his lead—”the Republican establishment has no use for me,” he concedes—he is determined to forge ahead on his own. “The states should function like 50 laboratories for experimenting in the democratic process, contributing to the whole, but in different ways,” he says. “I intend to keep fighting for the New Hampshire way.”